Public Enemies: Not Quite #1, But Worth Hunting Down
Public Enemies gallops along at a lightning-quick pace, full of action, tension, and beautiful cinematography. The key mistake I made before watching this newest film by Michael Mann was watching Heat, another Mann film, the night before. The parallels are obvious—a smart, foolproof robber has just found love and is looking to make a couple of final scores with his crew before getting out of the business. The problems with Public Enemies in comparison are equally obvious—inferior character development, inferior love story, and an inferior foe for our anti-hero burglar. That’s the main issue with this film… it has all of the elements and knows what it can be with its A-list movie stars, timely subject matter, and flawless period reproduction. It just never manages to take that step past good into great.
The film covers famous bank robber John Dillinger’s life towards the end of his reign as Public Enemy #1. J. Edgar Hoover, his task force leader Melvin Purvis, and a whole bureau of G-Men have made their personal mission to arrest or kill John Dillinger, while the public views him as an underground hero—he only steals from the rich banks, not the people themselves. “Why do you care what the public thinks of you?” one cohort asks Dillinger early in the film, to which he replies, “I care because I hide among them.” Indeed, he lives a very public life, going out to dinners, movies, dances, and even at one point walking right into a police station in plain sight.
The film is as good as it is largely because of Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. Dillinger would have been a very easy character to overplay—he could have emphasized the Robin Hood aspects, the romantic side, or the carpe diem attitude with enough fervor that he could have hammed his way into an Oscar nomination in a different type of film. Here, with Michael Mann’s smooth, almost documentary-esque visual style, Depp instead gives an understated charismatic performance—the type given by Movie Stars, and the type usually not rewarded by the Academy. Watch the scene where he attends the final movie he’ll ever see, as he understands how his own life mirrors the life of the gangster in the film. It’s subtle but powerful work.
Christian Bale, on the other hand, does not have the same sort of natural attractive charisma as an actor. His power is in his intensity and his steely glare, not in his ability to win over an audience. Because of the complete lack of character development for Melvin Purvis, Bale is mostly a void on the screen, and we rarely feel he is truly a match for Dillinger and his gang. Bale’s attempts are visible—he’s trying to find the fear and insecurities buried deep within Purvis, and he gives us small glimpses, but it’s never enough. He can’t match up with Depp, or even some of his other more charismatic G-Men. One G-Man called Fatboy exudes a deep menace that comes from a deep set fear of Dillinger, and another older special agent towards the end creates an impact from the second he steps onto the screen—it’s a shame Bale doesn’t have that effect.
Indeed, most of the actors in this film (and you’ll recognize several of them in smaller roles) are left to their own resources, since Mann seems more concerned with the period details and keeping the action chugging along. You won’t be sorry that he does, since the gunfights are really spectacular. There’s a shootout at a lodge in the woods where the sound effects are so piercing and vivid that I wouldn’t be surprised to find this film remembered come Oscar season in the sound categories. Also, the digital camerawork helps place you right into the fights, since it feels like a documentary crew is running between the bullets, capturing perfect footage as they run. Yet again, these fights pale in comparison to Heat, a film in which the audience cares about the characters involved in the fights. Just because we see that Johnny Depp cares about the actor who was killed doesn’t necessarily mean that it tugs our heartstrings equally. It’s award-worthy filmmaking and design work with a high-caliber cast, but it falls just short of its full potential, leaving us well satisfied but slightly… robbed.